What's the social cost of a casino in Hamilton? Brantford knows

From crime stats to addictions services to credit counselling, the social cost of casinos is hard to pin down.

Hamilton study shows impact on low-income residents

Lindsay Serbu, supervisor of adult mental health crisis at St. Leonard's, sees the damage of problem gambling first hand. Serbu says she'd have fewer clients if the casino wasn't there. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Near the OLG Casino Brantford, Darren Blackey and Ian Jones sit at a bar on a Thursday afternoon and talk about the local amenity. 

Blackey lives a four-minute walk from the casino but rarely goes. Jones hasn't been there for a year. The reason?

"Sometimes I win, but most of the time I lose," Jones said.

Both Jones and Blackey have anecdotal stories of people who use the casino and can't afford it.

"The casino draws on the money of people on disability or pensions," Blackey said. "I know of people who go in there with a desire to get out of debt and get more in debt."

These stories are anecdotal. But when it comes to the social impact of the casino in Brantford, much of the evidence is anecdotal.

This is the third story in a four-story series about the impact of the casino in Brantford.

Previous stories:

Casino means money for a new downtown, Brantford mayor says

Some Brantford charities hurt by post-casino bingo closure


A look inside the casino, and what happens next for Hamilton

The number of the clients served through the St. Leonard's Community Services gambling responsibility program shows a small upward trend. There were 64 in 2011, 65 in 2010 and 24 in 2009. From April to September this year, there were 39.

But that doesn't include all of the telephone, face-to-face and indirect consultations, including with gamblers who have other addictions, said Jyoti Kapur, director of clinical services. And some of them struggle with other facets of gambling, such as online gaming.

At the women's shelter, Nova Vita, two women of the roughly 175 seen in 2011 reported having an issue with casino-related gambling, said executive director Joy Freeman. But "I really don't believe that's representative because many women choose not to tell."

The Family Counselling Centre of Brant offers credit counseling, and has seen some clients with issues with the casino, said credit counsellor Sue Davey.

Number of people served by the St. Leonard's Community Services gambling responsibility program:

2007/8 — 40

2008/9 — 42

2009/10 — 24

2010/11 — 65

2011/12 — 64

2012/13 (April 1 to Sept. 30 only) — 39

"We have had people occasionally identify this is the area of concern for them, but as far as specific data, we don't have that," Davey said. "People have identified and indicated that having a casino in their backyard can lead to problems, but they probably had those problems to begin with."

Brantford Police only provides crime statistics back to 2005, and those show a mixture of up-and-down statistics. The police service was not available to be interviewed on this subject this month.

The stats show that from 2007 until last year, there were 2,301 frauds, an increase of 20 per cent over previous years. There was also an increase in impaired drivers, mischief, vehicle theft, assaults and sexual offences. Other areas, such as robberies and break and enters, were down.

But those who work with problem gamblers have stories.

Gambling addiction

Lindsay Serbu, supervisor of adult mental health crisis services at St. Leonard's, counsels people with gambling addictions. She has heard — anecdotally — of people wearing incontinence products so they don't have to leave their slot machines, believing the next play will produce a big win.

Casino-related police calls in Brantford:

2006 — 421

2007 — 356

2008 — 235

2009 — 358

2010 — 237

2011 — 173

2012 — 80 to end of May

Some of Serbu's clients have problems with scratch tickets. Some have Proline problems. But the majority are dealing with slots at the casino, she said. If the casino wasn't there, she believes she would have fewer clients.

"A lot of it is the older generation and it stems a lot of times from loneliness or emptiness, or a major life change like retirement," she said. "Gambling is a very social activity."

Brantford Mayor Chris Friel is pleased with the impact the casino has had since it opened in 1999. It's difficult to find hard data on the social impact because there isn't one, he said.

Brantford has had issues with drugs, prostitution and other crime, but it's a product of de-industrialization, not a casino, he said.

Casino-related police calls

"It's measured. It's understood. We even know how to address it, and we do."

In a report at a casino town hall meeting in Hamilton in October, Friel showed the number of casino-related calls police took in from 2006 to 2011. In 2006, there were about 421. In 2011, there were 173.

Those stats run the gamut, from impaired driving to domestic violence. But they weren't necessarily directly related to the casino, Friel said.

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"We're probably the most conservative community in how we measure casino-related calls," he said. "If a guy goes to the casino on Friday night with his buddies, it's a casino-related call. They just have to say 'casino' and it's in there."

The city has not experienced an increase in crime or social issues because of the casino, he said.

Hamilton study done

As for the notion of those with low incomes suffering from the casino, "prove it," Friel said.

"If people are concerned about the poor and people on social services gambling, it's not in the casino, it's in the convenience store," he said. "That's where you have to have your worries."

The Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction wants to be sure. The roundtable is figuring out where it stands on the casino issue, Cooper said. In doing so, it commissioned a study by local researcher Sarah Wayland.

Wayland's study found that while low-income residents don't gamble as often as medium and high-income households, they spend a disproportionately higher percentage of their income on gambling, Cooper said.

"It also showed the closer someone lives to a casino, the greater chance of someone going to a casino, so that would obviously have an impact for residents in the downtown core," he said.

Studies have found that low-income populations are more likely to buy a lottery ticket or play bingo. But those who go to casinos "spend a lot of money," Wayland said.

Vigorous debate needed

"There's a small percentage of people in low-income brackets that spend disproportionately at casinos."

Toronto's public health unit has taken a stance on a potential GTA casino, saying it would lead to an increase in problem gambling. Hamilton's public health unit will present a report to council at a board of health meeting on Dec. 3, said spokesperson Tara Hall.

A casino could bring more jobs, which could benefit Hamiltonians, Cooper said. But it's important that those jobs provide a decent wage.

These questions make a casino "a tough, tough call," Cooper said.

"What we're looking for is vigorous civic debate. We want to get all pros and cons out and discuss them openly."